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Ethics versus Ritual

  • Ethics versus Ritual

    Vayeira, Genesis 18:1–22:24
D'var Torah By: 

One of the great modern teachers of Judaism, Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf, zichrono livrachah,urged Reform Jews to ritualize the ethical and ethicize the ritual. Rabbi Wolf's point was that Jewish tradition does not differentiate between ethical and ritual law. (See essay "Back to the Future: On Rediscovering the Commandments," in Duties of the Soul, eds. Knobel and Goldstein [New York: UAHC Press], 1999, p. 20). They are deeply intertwined and mutually reinforcing. This argument has its detractors, and it surely does not characterize the views of the founders of Reform Judaism in nineteenth-century Germany and America, who saw ritual practices as the husk surrounding the Jewish kernel of ethical monotheism. Yet, for Reform Jews exploring traditional practices and developing new ones, the notion of creating rituals that convey an ethical message is an appealing one. We see this trend, for example, in the blessing for pursuing justice produced by the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism (see and the creation of new liturgies that address issues of discrimination based on gender or sexual orientation.

One significant area where our tradition provides a basis for ethicizing the ritual is hachnasat orchim, "welcoming guests." In this week's parashah, we see a model for how to do so. Ourparashah opens with Abraham at the entrance of his tent: "The Eternal appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre as he was sitting at the entrance of the tent at about the hottest time of the day" (Genesis 18:1). The midrashim on this verse emphasize that Abraham was at the tent's entrance because he was actively seeking visitors. Indeed, according to the Talmudic scholar, Louis Ginzberg, Abraham's tent was open on all four sides so that he could see visitors coming from any direction (see Legends of the Bible [Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1992], p. 110).

What happens next is critical for understanding both the first verse and the unfolding of the rest of the scene. The second verse of our parashah reads, "Looking up, he saw: lo-three men standing opposite him" (18:2). This statement seems pretty straightforward. Yet we read in the opening verse that God had appeared before Abraham. Did Abraham tell God to wait for a minute while he welcomed the three men? That would seem, perhaps, disrespectful to God. Both Maimonides and the Rashbam (Rabbi Sh'muel Ben Meir, grandson of Rashi) solve this problem by arguing that the text is presenting us with a generalization and a specification. The generalization is "The Eternal appeared to him [Abraham]." The specification is "Looking up, he saw: lo-three men standing opposite him." In other words, God appeared to Abraham through the guise of the three men, who were angels. Thus Abraham is not visited by two separate parties. In this scene, God and the three men are the same party (See Nehama Leibowitz, New Studies in Bereshit, (Genesis) [Jerusalem: Haomanim Press, n.d.] pp. 158-59; see also Maimonides, Guide of the Perplexed part 2, chapter 42).

In his commentary, Nachmanides takes a different view. He contends that in the opening verse, God is visiting Abraham to honor him for his obedience in circumcising himself. Yet, when Abraham saw the three visitors arriving, he rushed to welcome them, even though he was in the midst of communicating with God. To generalize the story, one could say that Abraham set aside his personal spiritual needs (communicating with God) to fulfill the mitzvah of welcoming guests.(See Leibowitz, New Studies in Bereshit, p. 160). Yet perhaps this dichotomy is too simplistic. Rather, we might say that Abraham was imitating God by setting aside his conversation with God to attend to the men. The Talmud teaches, we recall, that we should imitate God's ethical actions. Just as God visits the sick, we should visit the sick. Just as God comforts mourners, so should we. (Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 14a). If God cared about Abraham's physical needs enough to visit him, so Abraham cared enough about the needs of the three men to attend immediately to them.

The text also makes clear that Abraham is not performing the mitzvah of hachnasat orchimrotely. He is doing it with great intensity. Forms of the words for "hurry" (mem-hei-reish) and "run" (reish-vav-tzadi) appear five times in this scene. Sarah also exemplifies this synthesis of intent and action, rushing to prepare a meal and using choice ingredients. Abraham's and Sarah's action combine performance with faith, endowing the ritual act of preparing a meal with the ethical responsibility to attend to strangers. Lest we embrace the interpretation of Maimonides and Rashbam that the visitors were angels, and thereby think that Abraham and Sarah were simply trying to impress them, the text gives no indication that Abraham and Sarah knew they are angels. Rather, the text is clear in identifying the mens' human needs (a meal and washing of the feet) that Abraham and Sarah addressed. The primary hint that the men might be angels comes after the meal when one of them tells Abraham that Sarah will soon have a child.

It is said often that Judaism is a religion of deed, not creed. Yet, while pithy, the statement is a vast oversimplication. Part of the beauty of Judaism lies in its synthesis of deed and creed into mitzvot, sacred acts, or divine commandments. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik put it beatifully when he said that Judaism combines "rituals and ethics into one performance . . . Judaism was the first to tell the world that God is interested in our ethics, and that we therefore serve Him by constantly imitating Him . . . God does not have one set of rules for rituals, and a different set for acting toward our fellow man" (See David Holzer, The Rav: Thinking Aloud [Miami: Holzer Publishing, 2009], pp. 286-287).

Our parashah begins with Abraham experiencing a vision of God. Yet in the midst of this transcendent moment, Abraham rushes to welcome three guests. Perhaps the progression in action is logical. Abraham experiences God in heaven, and then he and Sarah, through their kindness, their rush to hachnasat orchim, bring heaven down to earth.

Abraham's action is a wonderful teaching that encourages us to welcome guests to our temples and communities. And it serves as a reminder to appreciate the hospitality of the Reform community of Toronto as the Union holds its biennial meeting in Toronto this week.

At the time of this writing in 2009, Rabbi Evan Moffic was serving as senior rabbi of Congregation Solel in Highland Park, Illinois.

Bringing Heaven Down to Earth
Davar Acher By: 
Deborah Niederman

Rabbi Moffic suggests that our human actions, as exemplified by Abraham and Sarah's modeling of "welcoming guests," hachnasat orchim, can "bring heaven down to earth." He suggests that the ethical way Abraham and Sarah approach this mitzvah imbues it with special meaning, and quoting Rabbi Soloveitchik, reminds us that God does not have separate standards for our ritual and ethical acts.

Many of the rich stories that follow in this very same parashah challenge the ethical nature of humanity and God's hopes for God's Chosen People. "For I have selected him [Abraham], so that he may teach his children and those who come after him to keep the way of the Eternal, doing what is right and just. . . ," (Genesis18:19). And what does it mean to keep the way of the Eternal? It means to act in an ethical manner to do what is right and just. And so, in pleading with God to save Sodom and Gomorrah in the very next story in this parashah, Abraham takes an ethical stance and questions God's own justice: "Must not the Judge of all the earth do justly?" (Genesis 18:25). Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut tells us Abraham's pleading fails, "not because his moral stance is faulty but because his premise is wrong: There are not enough righteous people in the cities who could make a difference" ( The Torah: A Modern Commentary, rev. ed. [New York: URJ Press, 2005] p. 121). We are reminded that it takes the impact of a courageous band to bring about change and that if there are not enough righteous people, they will perish with their neighbors as do all the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah.

In her commentary in The Torah: A Women's Commentary, Judith Plaskow claims thatParashat Vayeira is "filled with violence" from the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah to the expulsion of Ishmael and Hagar, the deception against Abimelech, and finally, the Akeidah. She argues that this parashah ultimately teaches by negative example:

This Torah portion makes clear that our ancestors are by no means always models of ethical behavior that edify and inspire us. On the contrary, often the Torah holds up a mirror to the ugliest aspects of human nature and human society. It provides us with opportunities to look honestly at ourselves and the world we have created, to reflect on destructive patterns of human relating, and to ask how we might address and change them. ([New York: URJ Press, 2008] p. 107)

May it be that we are like those few of Sodom and Gomorrah who numbered less than ten but strove to do as Plaskow encourages us to act in this day, and as Abraham did in his day; to bring about positive change by our ethical actions. May our own ethical actions support the cause of all who suffer injustice, and may we be like Abraham and Sarah in our relating to allstrangers so that we might bring heaven down to earth.

At the time of this writing in 2009, Deborah Niederman, R.J.E., was an education specialist in the URJ Congregational Consulting Group.

Reference Materials: 

Vayeira, Genesis 18:1–22:24 
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 122–148; Revised Edition, pp. 121–148; 
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 85–110